6 Common Marriage Questions, Answered
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6 Common Marriage Questions, Answered

See how marriage therapists advise dealing with these difficulties.

The Questions

Stale Sex Life

Q. My husband and I have been married for almost 20 years. Our life is pretty good in all areas -- except for our sex life. I miss the way sex used to be. Is there a way to get back the passion -- or is this the best it's going to be?

 
My Husband Doesn't Help

Q. We've been married for 10 years, and have three sons. My husband and I said that our marriage would be a partnership, but the reality is anything but. I work full-time, then come home to my second "job." My husband thinks he deserves a medal if he empties the dishwasher! We've been bickering about this for ages. What do you suggest?

 
After the Affair

Q. My husband had an affair with a woman he met on a business trip. He says it's over, that he never cared for her, and that he wants to make our marriage work. The problem: I can't forget! I think about his betrayal every day. He's been patient with me, but he doesn't understand why I can't move on. What can I do?

 
On the Outs with the In-Laws

Q. My mother-in-law hates me! She constantly finds ways to pull my husband and me apart, and she's made it clear that I'm not welcome in her house. When my husband takes our 4-year-old daughter to visit, I stay home. What do I say when my daughter starts asking why I don't go with them?

 
I Think He's Cheating

Q. I've been married for five years, and have a new baby. I'm trying not to be paranoid, but I think my husband is having an affair. He works much later than ever, never calls to tell me he's going to be late, and when he is home, he seems withdrawn and distracted. Am I overreacting? What should I do?

 
Cheating: To Tell or Not?

Q. I just discovered that the husband of a close friend is having an affair. If the situation was reversed, I'd want her to tell me. Should I let her know?

 

Stale Sex Life

Q. My husband and I have been married for almost 20 years. Our life is pretty good in all areas -- except for our sex life. I miss the way sex used to be. Is there a way to get back the passion -- or is this the best it's going to be?

Sallie Foley, MSW, co-author of Sex Matters for Women: A Complete Guide to Taking Care of Your Sexual Self, answers:

A. Your question is wonderful in two ways. First, one of the reasons you have a good life after 20 years of marriage is because you kept working on it. Second, continuing passion in a relationship is definitely not only possible, but also probable given what you've described. So, how do you get there? It all begins with the commitment to being passionate about your sexuality and sex life together. After the commitment comes the planning. Think about the things you might try together. As you follow through on your plans, it will give you both a sense of fresh joy and excitement. Your passion for each other has gotten sleepy. It's time to wake it up. Try new things. Think about different positions, read erotica to each other, or use a vibrator for fun. You can make lists of things you're curious to try and share them with each other.

Don't forget the power of foreplay. Not the in-bed kind, but the kind that leads us to want to make love. Playfulness during the day and extra kindnesses to each other can be great. And most individuals love the thrill of being told, when there are no strings attached, how absolutely special they are. When people feel good about themselves and committed to being creative as lovers, that's the best it's gonna be!

My Husband Doesn't Help

Q. We've been married for 10 years, and have three sons. My husband and I said that our marriage would be a partnership, but the reality is anything but. I work full-time, then come home to my second "job." My husband thinks he deserves a medal if he empties the dishwasher! We've been bickering about this for ages. What do you suggest?

Nanette Berman Cohen, MSW, an individual and couples therapist in Merrick, New York, responds:

A. It sounds like each of your perceptions of how much you do is skewed by the fact that you both feel overwhelmed and unappreciated. You're clearly in a stiff competition that each of you is trying to win. The trouble is, when you focus on winning, you're not putting resolution -- or your relationship -- first. Before you can find a way out of this conflict, you have to call a time out. This won't be easy, considering the simmering tension and resentment you're both feeling, but I do have two suggestions to get you going: First, figure out when the two of you can spend some time together. What do you enjoy doing together? Going out to dinner? Walking along the beach and having a picnic? Going for a bike ride? I know you're probably thinking, "Why would I want to go on a picnic when I can't stand being in the same room with him?" Well, if you start re-energizing the fun part of your relationship, it will help you both remember that there is a reason you have been together for ten years. The key is to be mindful of the moments in which you do connect. It will also make talking about your feelings much easier.

Second, each of you should make a list of what your partner does around the house. This is not a list to hold up to each other and say, "See how much I do?" Rather, think of it as an appreciation list. When we're stressed out and exhausted, it can be hard to see the world through your partner's eyes. Read what you've noted out loud and thank each other for making the effort to keep the family running smoothly.

Once the immediate tension has eased, and you're both ready to discuss the tough issues, start on a soft note. Without being negative or judgmental (remember those appreciation lists!) begin a conversation with something positive. You might say: "It's important for me to know what you're feeling, so we can find a solution that works for both of us." This shows that the relationship is your priority, and you're trying to be sensitive to his point of view. Mention the tasks you find most difficult to complete and ask if your husband can find a way to take some of them off your list. Then, suggest ways you can help with his list. By negotiating, juggling and compromising, you should be able to find a way to even the load you both feel.

After the Affair

Q. My husband had an affair with a woman he met on a business trip. He says it's over, that he never cared for her, and that he wants to make our marriage work. The problem: I can't forget! I think about his betrayal every day. He's been patient with me, but he doesn't understand why I can't move on. What can I do?

Bonnie Eaker-Weil, Ph.D., author of Make Up, Don't Break Up and Adultery: The Forgiveable Sin, answers:

A. Healing and forgiving take time and patience on both your parts -- just how long it takes varies by couple. Some couples find emotional healing takes a few months, others a few years. It's healthy to be bitter, but it's unhealthy to stay stuck at that stage. By learning to work through these bitter feelings, you will feel in control of them, not controlled by them.

Nothing will help you forgive or regain a connection faster than empathy and compassion on your husband's part. If he can learn to validate your pain and rage on a daily basis -- for as long as it takes -- you will find it easier to move forward. Without this validation, the pain may never go away. In a sense, by withholding forgiveness, you are actually continuing the affair. So stop. It's not easy, but you can do it.

Admit that you're very angry, but try to contain your obsessing about the affair to five- or ten-minute dialogues a day. Even though your husband doesn't understand why it's taking you so long to forgive him, tell him that these dialogues will help you move toward forgiveness. These time-limited sessions -- during which you and your husband agree that you can say anything and ask any question about his extra-marital relationship -- will help you release your rage. During these sessions, your husband needs to don an "emotional bulletproof vest," and promise not to respond or defend himself or his ex-lover. He merely needs to listen and empathize with your feelings. End each session by snuggling, holding hands, and feeling close.

To further rebuild shattered trust, ask your husband to give you daily reassurance, without prompting, that he has had no contact with his ex and that he loves you and wants to nurture the marriage. Ask him what was missing in the marriage that he needs you to do for him and evaluate, with an open mind, any contribution you may have unwittingly made to the affair. Did you set limits and enforce them? Did you make your needs known? Did you create a home atmosphere that felt emotionally unsafe for your partner? Looking at the part you played in the marital problems doesn't mean the affair was your fault; it simply means that you are willing to accept some responsibility for the problems you've had.

Finally, remember that making time to talk every day will also help you heal. You need to invite intimacy by practicing a new system of honest and full communication. Don't let work, children or in-laws wedge themselves between the two of you. Nourish your sense of fun, spontaneity, and desire to please each other by remembering the traits that first attracted you. Spend time doing the activities you used to share. This will help you survive the pain and reach reconciliation. However, if you still find yourself unable to get past the affair, consider seeking professional help.

On the Outs with the In-Laws

Q. My mother-in-law hates me! She constantly finds ways to pull my husband and me apart, and she's made it clear that I'm not welcome in her house. When my husband takes our 4-year-old daughter to visit, I stay home. What do I say when my daughter starts asking why I don't go with them?

Joann Paley Galst, Ph.D., an individual and couples therapist in New York City, answers:

A. You're right to be concerned. Children are very perceptive and do pick up on tension within families, even if it is not directly expressed. However, they don't know the causes of the tension, and because of their inherent egocentrism, they tend to blame themselves. Often, they think "My bad behavior has caused all these problems among the grownups."

As you've discovered, secret feelings are almost impossible to keep secret. An undercurrent of whispers, facial gestures, body language, overheard bits of conversation or hesitant and evasive answers to questions combine to drive children to come up with their own explanation, which can be more disturbing than the reality. To ensure that your daughter has a happy, healthy relationship with members of her family, you should try to settle your disputes, if possible.

That said, you're in a tough position. Cease-fires can't occur unless all parties sign on. Since it sounds as if your problems have been going on a long time, it may take a while to repair the damage. Yes, she's been horrible to you, but can you try to understand her as a person, with her own anxieties, fears, and emotional baggage? If you can, you might be more open to seeing what, if anything, you may have done or be doing to exacerbate tensions. If you recognize that you hurt her in the past, apologize. If you've made all the reparations you can, then it's time for your husband to step in. In fact, he can be pivotal in healing the breach. It's his job to stand up for you when his mother criticizes or insults you. He needs to explain to her, in private, that if she loves him, she needs to respect his choice of a wife. If tensions do eventually ease, you should try to set up a three-way meeting to talk about what has gone wrong and why. Consider consulting a clergyman or family therapist, who can help all of you decipher patterns in the way you are acting and reacting to each other, and in time, perhaps heal wounds.

However, if, after all your efforts, you still feel unwelcome in your mother-in-law's home, avoid open warfare for your daughter's sake. Accept the fact that you may never be able to change her view of you, but that your child should have the opportunity to develop her own relationship with her grandmother. Of course, pretending that you like someone you detest will come across as disingenuous and will be confusing to your child. Instead, tell her that you and your mother-in-law have a tough time getting along, but that she loves her very much -- and you're glad she has a good relationship with her. Be open in answering her questions, but spare her the dirty details and don't use her inquiries as an opportunity to vent your anger. Needless to say, be careful not to use your daughter as a pawn in any ongoing battles: Don't ask her to convey messages to your mother-in-law and don't pump her for information about what she may have said about you during her visits. On the other hand, if she hears something that makes her uncomfortable, then you and your husband must step in and tell your mother-in-law that your daughter will not be allowed to spend time with her if that continues.

I Think He's Cheating

Q. I've been married for five years, and have a new baby. I'm trying not to be paranoid, but I think my husband is having an affair. He works much later than ever, never calls to tell me he's going to be late, and when he is home, he seems withdrawn and distracted. Am I overreacting? What should I do?

Bonnie Eaker-Weil, Ph.D., author of Make Up, Don't Break Up and Adultery: The Forgiveable Sin, answers:

A. You may be overreacting -- then, again, the fact that you're this worried means that some problem needs to be addressed. Many people are shocked to discover that adultery is not uncommon even around such a happy time as the birth of a much-wanted child. Actually, infidelity can follow any life transition, pleasant or unpleasant. Moving to a new community, taking a new job, having a child leave home for college, all trigger major shifts in the nature of a relationship and those shifts inevitably trigger new stresses.

However, in most cases, a new father's affair has more to do with his own anxieties and fears about being a father than about his lack of love for his wife. Your husband may be feeling left out. He may see you devoting all your time and attention to the baby, and fall into bed wanting only to sleep, never to make love. On the other hand, he may simply be so overwhelmed by the changes in his own life -- and worried about making financial ends meet -- that he is legitimately pouring his time and energy into being more successful.

How can you tell for sure? The first thing you must do is speak up. The sooner the better. If you're unhappy, you can't assume your husband will simply know what's wrong. Besides, not saying anything will deepen your suspicions and intensify your anger. And if he's having an affair, your silence gives tacit approval to his actions.

The way you handle the confrontation can affect its outcome. To be effective, forget being critical and judgmental. You need to be direct but, at the same time, make it safe for your husband to be honest with you. Take responsibility for the role you've played in recent problems. Empathize with his concerns, and let him know you want to work things out. After all, this is a difficult time for him, too.

Without generalizing or piling on a laundry list of grievances, tell him the effect his recent behavior has had on you. You might say: "I know you've been lonely and I've been preoccupied with the baby. I haven't been there for you and I know there's someone else." (Don't ask: "Are you having an affair?" That sets you up for outright denial.)

Then, listen carefully to what he has to say, and prepare yourself for an answer you may not want to hear. If your husband dismisses your concerns, or puts you down for doubting him, red flags are flying. My advice would be to seek professional counseling -- whether or not infidelity is an issue, you have a communication problem that needs to be addressed. And if your husband won't face it, you need to face it alone.

If your husband admits that he's been unfaithful, it will probably trigger a marital crisis -- but it's a crisis that you will have to weather if you want to hold your marriage together. You both need to figure out what went wrong in the marriage, and what you each need to do to make it better. You will each need time to be angry, to grieve, and then to find the strength to work on the marriage.

Cheating: To Tell or Not?

Q. I just discovered that the husband of a close friend is having an affair. If the situation was reversed, I'd want her to tell me. Should I let her know?

Bonnie Eaker-Weil, Ph.D., author of Make Up, Don't Break Up and Adultery: The Forgiveable Sin, answers:

This is a tough one -- and many of my colleagues are divided on how best to handle it. If you say nothing, you feel terrible because you're harboring a secret from a friend you care about, and that makes you party to the betrayal itself. On the other hand, unless your friend has already admitted that she doubts her husband's fidelity, telling can set off a cataclysmic reaction. You pit yourself against her spouse -- and may well compromise your friendship. Then, too, perhaps she knows already, and has chosen, for her own reasons not to say anything to you. Perhaps her husband's dalliance is a one-night mistake in an otherwise solid marriage. Your information could send it headed to divorce court.

That said, I always believe that it's best to let a friend know what you know -- and the way you deliver the information can make all the difference. First, consider your own motives carefully. Do you really want to spare your friend pain -- or are you feeling somewhat self-satisfied since you never liked her husband to begin with? When you're clear on this, you'll be able to make your friend understand how much you care about her. And if her marriage is in trouble, she'll need you to be there for her. You can say: "You know how much I care about you and your happiness. I saw something that troubles me deeply, something I'd want to know if the situation was reversed." Ask for permission to share your info, let her know that you have mentioned this to no one else, and that you'll wait for her cue about doing or saying anything else.

 
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